Sermon for Sunday 25th March 2012
‘having been made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,
having been designated by God a high priest for ever
according to the order of Melchizedek’
A good friend was once at an ecumenical conference. There were there representatives of all the Christian Churches and as is the case on such occasions, there were ample small group sessions where folk would share together their different experiences. My friend found himself in a small group with a priest from the Orthodox Church, that church which accounts for about a third of the world’s Christians. Well conversation moved on to differing practices of Worship and my friend seeking to engage the Orthodox Priest, who seemed to have become very quiet, asked him if he would describe worship in his tradition. ‘Worship?’ he replied, ‘how can one describe Worship’, and descended back into silence. Along also now with the rest of the group.
It seems, as the American Writer Marva Dawn puts it, that all too often the church descends into ‘Worship Wars’ – where Everyone it seems has some sort of opinion which they are eager to voice. ‘ The Old hymns are completely outdated’ – ‘the new songs are so banal’ – Church is not complete without a Choir – No! A Band is what is needed! – Must we have so much Liturgy – Oh How I Love the Old Prayer Book – Oh How I Love the New Zealand prayer book. Worship is all too often it seems, to steal the words of Macbeth about life ‘a tale . . . full of sound and fury’ - but, if the Orthodox Priest is right only an idiot would try to tell it, and it signifies Far from Nothing.
Yet however much people are ready with their opinions about worship - pretty exclusively it must be said in the Protestant Churches – it seems that when we come to the Scriptures we Avoid like the plague those passages where Worship is thrust to the fore. If I were to ask which book of the Bible, people were most wary of and found most difficult – then I guess most folk would say ‘The Revelation of St John the Divine’ – a book which is Profoundly to do with Worship – false and true worship, not of course that that has stopped a Lot of people talking about it. But running it a close second, surely must be the Letter to the Hebrews, which seems utterly impenetrable to most modern readers and also contains a rebuke to those who don’t understand it. [ Along with Dire warnings about falling away!]Immediately after the passage we heard a moment ago – we hear this. ‘About this we have Much to Say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God!’. It is almost as if it is saying – not only don’t you understand worship in its fullness, you haven’t even got off first base – you are still in the nursery.
And we Bridle at that of course – well we’ve been worshipping all our lives we say – OK then – who is Melchizedek? What does it mean that Christ has been designated by God a high Priest in the order of Melchizedek? Why does the author go on for THREE CHAPTERS about Melchizedek???
Plainly if this book is all about Christian Worship, then perhaps we too need to keep more silence about it. Certainly at one level this passage presents a Profound puzzle concerning the whole thrust of the book of Hebrews to this point – for up until chapter 5 the key theme has been how Jesus has been Better – Greater than – what has gone before. He is greater than the prophets – the book opens ‘ Long ago God spoke to our ancestors, in many and various ways – but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,’ - Greater than Moses – ‘Now Moses was faithful in all god’s house as a servant – Christ however was faithful over God’s house as a Son’ – and now as the Melchizedek section begins, Christ is being portrayed as Greater than the High Priest of the line of Aaron, the high priest in the Temple at the time of Jesus. And to make the point – the writer begins by making the point that Christ is a Valid High Priest – for he does not appoint himself – but was appointed by God as was Aaron – but then goes on that he is of a different Order – that of Melchizedek – not of Aaron.
So in Christ we do not have the continuation of the order of Aaron, the order of the Time from Moses to Jesus – but rather the continuation of a Much older order – that Of Melchizedek. In a real sense there is a suggestion that although Christ’s priesthood is the greatest, it is paralleled by that of Melchizedek.
So Just who Was Melchizedek?? Well we read about him right back in the book of Genesis – The King of Elam, Fought against some of the neighbouring Kings and somehow Lot, Abram’s cousin got caught up in it and Captured. So Abram set out to rescue his relative. Having defeated the King of Elam he is on his way home when, out of nowhere we read‘Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him [Abram] and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Maker of heaven and earth;
20 and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
Maker of heaven and earth;
20 and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him[Melchizedek] a tenth of everything. And the writer to the Hebrews goes on to make the point that the lesser is blessed by the Greater – that Melchizedek is Greater than Abraham and perhaps we hear here an echo of a dispute Jesus has with the Pharisees – Are you greater than our Father Abraham? To which this reading from Hebrews answers with a resounding Yes!
And the parallels don’t end there - Melchizedek is a Priest King – King of Salem, which means King of Peace – and his name MelchiZedek means King of Righteousness. He is Priest, King of Righteousness and Peace. And Christ is both our righteousness and our Peace. And we are told – having neither beginning nor End – but Resembling the son of God – he is a priest forever. How can this be?? For this is the thing – we know nothing of Melchisedek – he pops in and out of the story - there is no hint of birth or death. Just as The King Priest – Christ is from all eternity to eternity - This is Most mysterious. Perhaps it is best to say that like the three visitors to Abraham – somehow Melchizedek is a theophany, or better a Christophany – Christ making himself known in the story from of old, as with the figure in the fiery furnace in Daniel.
We are left unsure – it is clear we are face to face with a profound Mystery with regard to this Priestly worshipful ministry, the book of Hebrews, shot through with the matter of Worship leaves us saying – ‘we do not know, we are not sure’ - and that it seems is important for two reasons.
Firstly, that all those worship wars seem in the end to boil down to one thing – a desire for worship that fits us. However it is stated – those who go to war over worship want something for themselves – whether it be beautiful language, or ‘music that makes me feel close to God’, or making it Relevant. What is essentially sought is less Worship that is focused towards the glorifying of the Son of Man, than Worship fits My categories of the Good and the True and the Beautiful. Of Marva Dawn it was once said she led a service of worship at the end of which a lady rather haughtily said to her ‘I did not like Any of the hymns today!’ and Dawn replied, ‘that’s Ok, we weren’t worshipping you!’
We live in an age where like Procrustes, we must make everything Fit – we have no time for mystery – everything must be brought down to the level of the human and if possible My Level – there must be NO Mystery!! We Must understand!! If we cannot it cannot be True – everything must be brought down.
And here some might argue, But That is Exactly the point of the Incarnation – Christ became like us – he came down, so that it Could be all on our terms – But that is Only half the story and if it is left there we are left in a swamp of self centered sin and not saved. No! The work of Christ in his Incarnation is not merely to step down, and that in itself is enough of a profound mystery for us to be more reticent in saying what it means for us all – no - it is to step down so that he may be lifted up – and So draw all people unto Him. He steps down to our life – in order to be lifted up – to be Glorified and so to lift us up to His Glorified Life.
This is a Profound mystery – and we come now in the church’s year to the culmination of that mystery – the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s own self offering upon the Cross – the Priest King glorified for the sake of the whole world, not to condemn but that the world might be saved through him. And it is the coming of the Greeks, their presence amplified in that it is the two Greek named Disciples, Philip and Andrew who tell Jesus – the profoundest of Mysteries that out of the depth of time and an obscure race – prefigured in the wandering Aramean, Abraham, ministered to by this shadowy yet Gloprious figure of Melchizedek – from this mysterious root might come the saviour of the world.
And in doing so to exercise a Priesthood which can find no ready parallel, only in this strange story of the Priest who appears out of nowhere with . . . Bread and Wine. We are pointed by Melchizedek’s action back to Christ. Thus when the disciples were told in the upper room to remember him in Bread and Wine they would be thrown back on this ancient type – not the Priesthood of Aaron, but of Melchizedek – here was the Priest who lives for ever, without beginning or end. And so they must have been thinking in terms of a Sacrificing Priest and they were right, but of a type Never seen.
Christ unlike the High Priests of the Aaronic line, offers Himself, a lamb with out spot or blame from before the foundation of the world. As we approach Holy week we hear this announcement from Christ himself – the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified – truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains but a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit – and when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to me.
So we look into the Heart of Worship – Christ’s Own self offering – this is why we should fear to speak of Worship for this is its heart, the self offering of the Son of God for our sins. All Worship comes from This Root. It is not primarily a response to it – rather it is Worship that Springs from it – Worship that can Only be understood in thelight of it. Jesus goes on ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ To worship in spirit and in truth is to follow in the path of this One True Sacrifice
As the grain falls to the ground and dies what does it do – but bears much fruit – many many more grains, that themselves fall to the ground and die, That do not themselves turn back from carrying their Cross because We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.
He has gone before us – our Great High Priest – revealing the self offering that is the Heart of Worship and so let us follow Him in this season of the Paschal Mystery, of the Lamb, slain before the foundation of the World.